In 2000, the oddball idea crashed into Michael Douglas' self-regard like a thundering piano glissando.
Between takes on "Traffic," the ensemble narco drama the actor was at work on then, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh came to Douglas to pitch the idea of him playing one of the 20th century's most flamboyant, fabulously magniloquent showmen in a future film.
"Steven gave me that pensive 'looking right through me' expression when I was portraying the drug czar, a pretty buttoned-up guy, to say, 'Have you ever thought about portraying Liberace?'" Douglas recalled. "I was paranoid. I thought, 'Maybe I'm mincing a little bit. What is he trying to say?'"
But the actor couldn't have predicted what would happen from there. Inhabiting '70s Las Vegas' most iconic, mink-swaddled piano player would present Douglas a lifeline: a beacon of hope in the actor-producer's darkest hours.
After Douglas was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer of the throat in 2010, the goal of portraying Liberace in Soderbergh's "Behind the Candelabra," which premiered on HBO in May and has garnered Douglas some of the best reviews of his five-decade acting career, helped sustain him through the battle between life and death. Turns out the goal of smashing face with Matt Damon, who plays Liberace's live-in lover, Scott Thorson, in the Emmy-contending made-for-TV movie, gave Douglas reason to recover.
"Besides getting the gift of 'Cuckoo's Nest,' this was the biggest gift of my life," said Douglas, 68, referring to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the 1975 drama he produced that nabbed a best picture Oscar and forever established Douglas' bona fides in Hollywood.
"You're getting back on your feet. And here you're delivered this great part," he continued. "It's well written. Fabulous director. Fabulous costar. So you really had something to look forward to. It was like saying [to cancer], 'I'm through with you. I. Am. Through. With. You.' I'll be eternally grateful to Steven and Matt."
Looking tanned and trim earlier this month, seated in an anteroom at his golf club in an affluent bedroom community north of New York City near his home, Douglas is now cancer-free, although he has to undergo tests every few months to make sure the disease remains in remission. He was scheduled to begin shooting director Rob Reiner's romantic drama "And So It Goes" opposite Diane Keaton a few days later in Connecticut — right around the time Douglas' comments in another interview correlating throat cancer with oral sex became a worldwide sensation.
But that would be for another time. In the leafy idyll of his club, the actor explained that portraying Wladziu Valentino Liberace — "Lee," as he was known to intimates until his death due to complications from AIDS in 1987 — presented any number of delicious challenges: a period film after a career's worth of contemporary roles, a juicy character lead based on a widely loved but deeply misunderstood public figure, not to mention the chance for Douglas to play a "nice guy" on the heels of so many heterosexual swashbucklers and cads, such as his most famous role, corporate raider Gordon Gekko in "Wall Street."
He pledged his commitment to "Candelabra" in 2008, after being handed the script by Richard LaGravenese ("Water for Elephants," "The Fisher King") based on Thorson's tell-all memoir, "Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace." The book details how Thorson became the 57-year-old entertainer's "lover, friend and confidant" despite a 39-year age gap, providing an intimate glimpse at Liberace in love: a larger-than-life character whose predilection for camp, glibness and ostentatious gestures somehow never belied his true sexual orientation to fawning legions of female fans.
But while Soderbergh proceeded with a two-year odyssey of pitching the project to every movie studio in Hollywood (which summarily turned "Candelabra" down for being "too gay"), Douglas was handed his diagnosis for the most terminal stage of cancer.
Mortal concerns aside, Douglas feared an extended convalescence would lose him the part. "There were moments when I said, 'This is going to go away. This is going to go away.' I was pretty bummed out."
To hear Soderbergh tell it, however, "Candelabra" would never have been made without Douglas. But try to pin the director down on what made Douglas — the embodiment of a certain grown-up American sexual Alpha-ness in the '80s and '90s — so right for the part and you get a stock answer. "I don't know!" Soderbergh said, with a hint of palpable wonder.
"Through a combination of his courageousness, his bravery and extraordinary technical skill as an actor, I sensed there was a capability that wasn't being exploited," Soderbergh said. "I must have sensed he had that quadrant, even though nobody had asked him to do anything like it."
Postponing production until 2011, when Douglas would be physically robust enough for the 30-day shoot, allowed the actor time to fine-tune his characterization — more an interpretation of Liberace than a faithful impersonation. For Douglas, the physical depiction of Liberace's love life was no more demanding than the boudoir exertions he enacts in the trilogy of psycho-sexual thrillers from his past: 1987's "Fatal Attraction," 1994's "Disclosure" and 1992's "Basic Instinct".
"The idea of kissing a man wasn't as big as it might seem," Douglas said. "Matt was the one coming out of the pool with his Speedo on and getting on top of me — not knowing I was going to grab his butt. But there becomes an intimacy, whether it's man-man or man-woman, there has to be a comfort factor. You have to be able to reach your finger out and put it on somebody's lips. We were into that."
But given his recent health scare and confronted by a number of other big life issues —wife Catherine Zeta-Jones' recent treatment for bipolar II disorder and his 34-year-old son Cameron's serving a federal prison term for selling methamphetamine chief among them — Douglas is taking his career resurgence in stride.
"Cancer and getting over it were the end of the second act. All of a sudden, I'm doing a bunch of pictures. I'm excited."
"This is nice. This is the beginning of my third act," Douglas saidCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times